Note: This is the draft version of the first chapter of my book. Patreon Patrons of Southwest Stories with the Two Steves get exclusive access to my ramblings! Aren't you lucky? You bet!
Some of you may think some characters resemble real, living, in-the-flesh human beings (or what passes for them these days) who are desert residents. I assure you this cannot be so, for this is a work of fiction, and therefore, real people are not allowed. Thus, you must be imagining it. Real people have inspired this book, but they all fell into one of the 17,000 vortexes out here and have come out as someone - something - else entirely.
My plan is to release a chapter a month, with each chapter reviewed first by Delphine, to ensure I do not overly embarrass myself.
In any event, here we go.....
- Steve Brown, of the Two Steves
Jackson stood in the middle of the highway, his legs straddling the faded double yellow lines that ran down the center of California Route 69. The asphalt was so hot, his boots stuck to the road the way they would cling to the floor of the Yucca Tree Cinemaplex. The wind came at him like some cosmic blow dryer on steroids, singeing and bone dry, right in his face, the desert sun sizzling its way leisurely down the sky to it's home in the San Berdoo Mountains in the west.
He was first on the scene of the accident and had called it in before he got out of his dusty tribal ranger Ford Explorer. He wasn't prepared for the carnage laid out before him, on and around the highway, but then again, he never was. He was a ranger, not a cop. Not even much of a ranger, really. He was just going home. Trying to go home. He was exhausted from the day's heat, dry, dusty, and worn out. He didn't even realize the word came out of his mouth, or the sigh that followed, but he said it again.
A radio was blaring from a twisted heap of metal that had tumbled off into the desert. The speakers were tinny, but Kenny Loggins was upbeat.
“I'm all right, nobody worry 'bout me...”
Jackson wondered for a moment if the song lyrics were a message from someone who had just walked on from this world to the next, a pop music oldie sending a hopeful reassurance back to those still wheezing and bleeding in the dusty wreckage.
It was almost certainly a fatality accident, Jackson thought, multiple fatalities likely, as he surveyed the all too familiar scene, trying to quickly prioritize where to head first. There were several vehicles strewn, whole or in part, about the searingly hot asphalt and desert. The sun was going down over the Mojave, and the glare probably played some role in what appeared to be a head-on collision that went from bad to worse, and beyond worse to nightmarish. He removed his sunglasses as he turned in the direction of the music.
“I'm all right...” Kenny crooned, the uptempo oldie insisted, though the mini-van that had the radio, at least it looked like it may have once been a minivan from where Jackson stood, didn't appear promising and was most certainly not all right.
Jackson took a quick inventory. Minivan to the right in the desert about fifty or sixty feet, obviously rolled at least once, probably a couple times more, judging by the mangled Joshua trees and cholla that had been in its path. A 70s-era pickup truck that had desperately needed a paint job, but no longer needed to worry about it since it was mostly scrap at this point, was upside down in the westbound lanes, its nose smashed, with its tail in the air, looking as if it had landed that way and spun on the roof of what was left of the cab. Liquid of some sort was pooling around it and pieces were everywhere.
There was some kind of SUV, the kind that was supposed to look manly and fueled by pure testosterone, but wasn't even four wheel drive, all smashed in on the drivers side, but still upright in the eastbound lanes. Pieces of plastic and glass were scattered about like someone had thrown glitter up in the air to decorate the scene.
Somewhere, Jackson thought, is a motorcycle off in the cholla that I'm missing. There always is.
A few cars were beginning to arrive at the accident scene from Yucca Tree, to the east, and Creosote Hot Springs to the southwest. Jackson's SUV was angled across the highway to the west of the accident with its lights doing their best to alert traffic to the disaster ahead. The tribe didn't drop the bucks for big vehicle light bars like the CHP did, but it was the best he could do. Most desert drivers were used to this kind of carnage so it wouldn't take them by surprise unless they were tweaked out.
“That was Kenny Loggins with “I'm All Right,” the radio's DJ announced, as if anybody didn't know what song it was after the line had been repeated at least a hundred times.
“Are you all right on this Saturday night?” he continued in a voice that sounded like it was meant to be gravelly and sexy, but didn't quite work, as if the DJ was still going through puberty. “Here's a song for you as the sun sinks down in the west over another beautiful day in the Mojave.” Predictably, Elton John's “Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” began playing and Jackson decided he'd head to the minivan first, if for no other reason than to turn the radio off.
He jogged off into the desert listening for sounds of life – screams, groans – anything he could hear over the pompous tired orchestration of Elton pleading for us to stop the sun from going down on him. Jackson passed the shredded stump of an obliterated Joshua tree, an innocent victim that no doubt had once fancied itself safe, this far off the highway. The ones that don't die from the drought or fire get mowed down by minivans. Not that it mattered in the long run. With the Mojave heating up from the climate change that so many people kept denying, all the Joshua trees at this elevation were expected to be gone in fifty years or so anyway, replaced by invasive Sahara mustard and L.A. hipsters.
As he came closer to the mangled wreckage of the minivan, with its sliding passenger door almost completely torn off and the interior looking a little like one of the small caves you find in the boulder piles, he noted to himself there had to have been a high rate of speed involved for it to get this far and look this bad. And then, he saw it.
It was an arm. Just a little one.
Jackson had seen plenty of gore and had endured plenty of unexpected and unwanted surprises during his job as a ranger. But while some men seemed stoically prepared for whatever they encountered, as if they had seen it all and then some, and acted as if none of it bothered them in the least, he never felt prepared for the things that shocked him to his core. That was one reason he wanted to quit.
It was recognizably an arm, but it was tiny and pale, like the limb ripped off of a toddler's doll, stuck fast in a cholla, bent, with it's limp hand hanging, palm open and facing him, down toward the ground. As the wind blew, it almost looked like it was waving at him.
It almost didn't look real. But this arm, this solitary, tiny, pale arm, glowing golden in the sweet light of the setting sun, the needles of the cholla radiant, as if they were some kind of spiny cactus halo, was real, too real, with the whiteness of bone poking out from where the arm had been roughly torn from the body it belonged to. It had once matched an equally tiny person, a little girl by the look of things. Jackson raced on toward the minivan. As he got closer, he could barely hear the whine of more sirens arriving over that damned radio.
“And now, it's time for the news at the top of the hour,” the DJ said, cutting Elton off mid-whine, before handing it over to Danny Santiago, the station owner who fancied himself a news man.
“That's right, it's time for yoooooouuuur lo-cal news here at K-Krazy, yoooooooouuuuur only lo-cal news for Yucca Tree! Get your lo-cal news right here on the hour every hour from six to nine every weekday. On the only radio station that gives you lo-cal news – K-KRZ, K-Krazy FM, your lo-cal news station.”
Jackson wasn't listening to Danny's glaring redundancies. He was leaning into the gaping hole in the side of the minivan, assessing the situation and hoping there was someone he could still help. Danny rambled on with his self-taught hyperbolic style of news reporting that had, over the years, made him hated by half the population of Yucca Tree, and adored by the other half – the half that had gotten to enjoy his gossipy, frequently embellished, and sometimes utterly fabricated “news” stories, without becoming a victim of one of them. Yet.
It was almost inevitable he'd eventually get to you. And when he did, he'd mix his one part truth with two parts editorializing, one part utter ignorance of whatever the background of your situation was, and a healthy dose of randomly made up “facts” created on the spot for the benefit of his listeners. Fake news was all the rage anyway, so Jackson supposed it didn't really matter.
Nobody really knew what went on in the desert, and, he thought, it probably was better that way. Plus, if you wanted the real news, you read Henry's paper, which wasn't as popular as Danny's news because it was factual, objective, and cost fifty cents, while the radio version was far more entertaining – and free.
More emergency vehicles were arriving on the scene. Jackson could almost tell how many, where they were, and what they were likely doing, just by listening to the distinct sounds they made – the sirens, the squawking radios, the yelling. He was sure he heard Sergeant Hamilton's booming bass voice taking charge of the situation, and sounding like it had been in charge all along.
As Jackson stuck his head into the minivan, Danny was railing about the town manager over some perceived grievance. Two adults, unconscious or dead, were in the front seats of the minivan. Jackson reached between them and switched the radio off. Danny was cut off in mid-sentence, and with the radio off, it seemed silent, though Jackson slowly became aware of other sounds inside.
She was crumpled on the floor, pushed up sideways against the driver's side of the vehicle, one leg splayed up onto the rear seat. She couldn't have been more than three or four. Her hair was long, brown and tussled, and her t-shirt, with some kind of rainbow and unicorn design on its front, was soaked in blood that continued to flow. She looked almost as if she had fallen asleep mid-stride and just fell. Only her arm was missing and her right shoulder was smashed.
She hadn't had her seat belt fastened when the accident occurred. Jackson heard movement from the driver in the front, muffled against the deployed airbag. The girl must have had her arm ripped from her tiny body as the minivan door tore open while the vehicle rolled across the desert. He bent to check her pulse. She didn't look alive, but he had to check. So much blood. Don't focus on the blood, he thought. Just assess and act.
More movement from the front of the van. This time from the passenger side. A woman. They were both alive, the man and the woman in the minivan. He placed his index and middle finger over the inside of the girl's one remaining wrist.
Nothing. The skin on her arm seemed almost translucent. It was soft, but he found it difficult to tell in the heat and wind if the warmth he felt was emanating from within or without.
He pressed down harder.
He thought he felt something. Not much, but something. There was a pulse, a small, determined heart beating inside this little girl. It was faint, but it was life. For the moment.
Jackson turned and looked out across the dusky desert as the sun began to settle behind the mountains. Blue and red lights were flashing and white lights were waving about as Hamilton's directions boomed from over in the direction of the overturned pick-up truck. Protocol was to leave accident victims where they were and wait for EMTs to move them properly. Jackson surveyed their progress so far and didn't think the little girl had the luxury of waiting.
He gathered her in his arms as careful as he could, blood still flowing from her shoulder, and he turned to exit the minivan. As he stepped out into the desert, he looked at her sweet little face. He'd always wanted a daughter of his own. This little girl was somebody's daughter. Maybe she wasn't in pain, he thought. Maybe she was dreaming. And in her dream, there was a rainbow arching over a friendly unicorn, with sparkles all around. And in her dream, she still had both arms and didn't know what death was.
Jackson ran with the girl in his arms, her blood soaking into his ranger uniform. The searingly hot wind dried the tears that began to form in his eyes. He raced past her waving arm dangling in the cholla, toward the clusters of revolving red, white, and blue lights of the emergency vehicles on the highway. He had to get her to the lights before the dream ended and she experienced the truth.